The Mylio Grant: Memories and Stories

Past Winner

What Remains : Forgotten Homesteads of the American West

Jennifer Meyers - Utah, United States

My proposed project is to photograph and gather information on many of the last remaining abandoned homes built by western pioneers in the Mountain West region of the United States. My end goal would be to produce medium to large scale photograph prints for a gallery setting.

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On May 20, 1862 President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Homestead Act. Designed to encourage western expansion, this act allowed any U.S. citizen, or intended citizen, the ability to lay claim to 160 acres of federal land and make it their own. In order to be awarded the landís title, Homesteaders were required to live off the land for 5 years, build a residence and improve the land through farming. In spirit, the Homestead Act was the quintessential ĎAmerican Dream.í It held promise of a new life for small farmers without their own land, immigrants, former slaves, and single women bent on change. By 1934, this revolutionary act (and the similar acts that followed) brought in more than 1.6 million homestead applications with over 270 million acres handed over to individuals laying claim.

The passage of the Homestead Act (and future laws allocating the distribution of public lands), played a big part in shaping the American West. With all its promise, however, there were many hardships and disadvantages to claiming free land and in the end it didnít turn out to be the saving grace the founders had intended . For many, life on the frontier was a daily struggle. Physical conditions such as wind, blizzards, and droughts forced many people to abandon their farms. With over a million homestead applications, only 40% of people completed the process to earn their homesteads. In addition to physical deterrents, the mechanization of agriculture in the 20th century challenged the prosperity of small individual homesteads as farming turned from small family run farms to large operations.

Decades later in our current time, there is little that remains from the days when pioneers took a gamble at a new life in the west. However, traveling through the far outskirts of many rural communities one is likely to come across structures in varying stages of decay and abandonment. These old houses and barns typically sit on desolate, seemingly uninhabitable lands. They stand alone and tattered, embodying the hardships of their long lost settlers.

As a photographer, I often come across such places while searching out creative and unique landscapes. When I do find an old home my focus immediately switches from natural landscapes to architecture set upon them. As I photograph, my mind starts to wander to the history of my current location; who settled here, what were they like, how did this place look at its prime, and where did they go? The mystery and isolation is both haunting and beautiful.

My proposed projects is to travel to the hidden corners of the Mountain West to document many of the last abandoned homes from long ago. It is my goal to seek out original homesteads (most likely from the early to mid 1900s) and learn what I can about those who lived there. I hope to do so by speaking with local historians and community members with deep roots to their town. The majority of the records created during the homesteading process still exist and are held at the National Archive which will also be a great resource. In addition, some abandoned homes still exist on public lands managed by the BLM.

I live in Northern Utah and my project will center around Utah and the neighboring states of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and Eastern Oregon. If awarded the grant, I would use the funds for basic travel (gas and the occasional overnight lodging) and gallery quality prints. My end goal would be to create a cohesive, stylized collection of photographs for a gallery setting. I would also like to print photographs and donate them and their gathered information to local history museums.

My background in photography spans the majority of my life. I studied photojournalism at Rochester Institute of Technology and have a BFA in Applied Photography. I have been working in the photography field for the past 10 years. I currently work as a photo editor and spend my free time immersed in personal photography projects.



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